Macs are expensive. As if to reinforce this universal maxim, the last remaining bastion of Apple affordability evaporated into the crisp fall air today above New York City, where Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled a brand-new Mac mini.
The old $499 Mac mini, a tiny desktop PC that is sold without a monitor or peripherals, was the least expensive entry point into the macOS ecosystem. Its replacement gets a slew of overdue improvements—the Mac mini’s last refresh was in 2014—but also a $300 price increase, which takes it far out of the realm of affordable desktops.
Even worse, the base level specs are quite anemic for an $800 computer. While the former entry-level Mac mini included an Intel Core i5 processor and 500GB of storage, those are reduced to a Core i3 and just 128GB of storage for the new one. It’s a bit of an imperfect comparison, since the new SSD and new CPU architecture are far better than the old ones, but it’s still disappointing.
Nearly any way you slice it, spending $800 for a Core i3-powered desktop PC is a raw deal. Unfortunately, there’s very little competition in the mini desktop PC market now that many consumers are forgoing desktops altogether in favor of laptops and 2-in-1s. One Mac mini competitor, the HP Z2 Mini G4, also includes a Core i3 in its base configuration but has an even higher starting price of around $900.
If you delve deeper into the Mac mini’s new pricing, it eventually becomes apparent that Apple is shepherding customers who are seeking the best processing power or the most storage for their dollars into two separate configurations that each cost $1,099, or $300 more than the entry-level price.
People who need extra processing muscle for apps like Adobe Photoshop will gravitate toward a model with a 3.6GHz, hexa-core Core i7 processor, with all other specs remaining the same. Meanwhile, those with large multimedia collections that require a roomier hard drive can instead opt for a 256GB SSD and a 3GHz hexa-core Core i5.
Both of these upgraded configs come with the base level 8GB of memory and Intel’s integrated graphics processor. Both also include Intel’s 8th-generation processor, which is light years faster than the fourth-generation chips in the previous Mac mini.
Still, none of this helps assuage the fact that the world is a far more bleak place for Apple-loving cheapskates today than it was yesterday: You can no longer buy a brand-new Apple computer for less than $500, which is the upper bound that PCMag uses to define the cheap desktop category.
This means that cost-conscious consumers now have two options. They can begrudgingly lighten their wallets by an additional $300, or an additional $600 for one of the more desirable $1,099 Mac mini configurations. Or, they can turn the other way, to very cheap Windows tiny desktops like the Intel Compute Stick or the legions of small PCs from brands they’ve probably never heard of, like ECS, Shuttle, and Zotac.
Besides reasonable prices—you can pick up a Google Chromecast-sized Intel Compute stick for as little as $99—tiny Windows PCs offer several other advantages over the Mac mini. The larger ones of the bunch are often upgradeable, so you can add memory or storage as your budget and computing needs evolve. The Mac mini is not. Meanwhile, the smaller ones are so small that they can plug into the back of your TV, making them a better choice to power a wall-mounted TV.
None of these options offer macOS, of course, so if that’s your operating system of choice, you’ve got to rule them out or consider switching to Windows.
But while the Mac mini may now be a poor value in terms of its core components, Apple made useful, thoughtful improvements to the ancillary features of its smallest PC. For example, its port selection now includes a whopping four USB-C ports, all of which support Thunderbolt 3. You’d be hard pressed to find another desktop this size that includes more than two Thunderbolt 3 connectors.
Even better, the Thunderbolt 3 ports don’t come at the expense of regular USB Type-A ports, bucking Apple’s trend of ditching these older but still very useful ports on the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, and MacBook. This is great news for people who want to use external hard drives instead of face the astronomical costs of adding a larger internal SSD—a 1TB SSD is a cool $800 premium.
In addition to an improved I/O complement, the new Mac mini also now comes in the space gray color of the rest of the Mac lineup, which means it will nicely match the space gray keyboard and mouse Apple introduced with the iMac Pro.
As welcome as they are, none of these benefits excuse the fact that Apple just killed off its only inexpensive Mac. For the most damning proof of Apple’s decision to abandon the low end of the PC market to focus on well-heeled shoppers, consider that while the company won’t take your $499 anymore, they’ll gladly sell you a Mac mini loaded with every available hardware option at a conniption-inducing $4,200.
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